The Amon Carter Museum of American Art announces today the acquisition of a major painting by 19th-century landscape artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821–1872), the first African-American artist to achieve international acclaim. The work, titled The Caves, painted in 1869, was originally owned by Cincinnati Abolitionist Richard Sutton Rust (1815–1906), and it remained in his family until the Amon Carter purchased it in late 2012. Because it has been in a private collection for nearly 150 years, the painting will be accessible to the public for the first time beginning May 4, when it is displayed in the Amon Carter’s galleries.
“Duncanson is an immensely important figure in American art,” says Andrew J. Walker, director of the Amon Carter. “He was a self-taught, black artist from Cincinnati and a leading landscape painter of his time, which was a monumental accomplishment during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods. Owning a work by this esteemed artist greatly enriches our collection.”
Impressive in scale, the painting is approximately 3 feet tall and is in magnificent condition. The Caves is painted in the Hudson River School tradition, which was an inspiration to Duncanson after he viewed works by Thomas Cole and other Hudson River School artists at Cincinnati’s Western Art Union in the late 1840s.
The scene depicts an intimate view of the wilderness, with unusual geographic features of steep ravines and sandstone cliffs perforated by a canopy of evergreens and a trio of caverns.
“At first glance, the scene suggests a documented view of untouched nature,” says Rebecca Lawton, curator of paintings and sculpture. “But then we notice three figures making their way up a steep incline toward the mouths of the caves.
“This painting is a fine example of Duncanson’s mature style,” Lawton continues. “His extraordinary powers of transcription are evident; and although the exact location of the painting is not confirmed, we believe it’s the area known today as Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. The work beautifully synthesizes mid-19th-century concerns for nature as an expression of cultural and national identity.”
Duncanson’s paintings seldom overtly depict the political and cultural issues of the years surrounding the Civil War, such as slavery and discrimination, according to Margi Conrads, deputy director of art and research. Instead, the artist may have included subtle cues in his landscapes that conveyed his anti-slavery position.
“His depiction of caves poses intriguing questions about whether the painting includes references to the abolitionist movement or the role of African-Americans in everyday society,” says Conrads. “Caves were among the safe havens for runaway slaves through the Civil War. Additionally, both before and after the War, African-Americans guided tourists through caves, and it’s possible Duncanson is referencing this in his painting through the figure at the cavern’s mouth. Regardless, the painting is a beautiful testimony of an artist dedicated to depicting the essential natural world.”
Four watercolors from the museum’s permanent collection by Adrien Mayers (1801?–1833) will be exhibited near the Duncanson painting through September 4. The watercolors portray an early view of Cincinnati, Duncanson’s adopted hometown and the place that nurtured his career.
Also on view are works by 20th and 21st century black artists, Romare Bearden (1911–1988) and Sedrick Huckaby (b. 1975). Bearden’s work is featured in the Amon Carter’s summer exhibition Romare Bearden: A Black Odyssey, on view May 18 through August 11. Fort Worth artist Sedrick Huckaby’s 18-foot-by-14-foot painting Hidden in Plain Site, created in 2011, is on view from May 14 through October 31 in the museum’s atrium.
“It’s a wonderful and distinctive moment for the museum to exhibit the works of three prominent black artists from three different centuries,” says Walker. “We are honored to show this exceptional American art to our visitors.”
The Amon Carter Museum of American Art is open Tuesday–Saturday from 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon–5 p.m. Admission is always free. More information at www.cartermuseum.org.
About Robert Seldon Duncanson
Robert Seldon Duncanson was born in Seneca County, New York, in 1821 to an African-American mother and a Scottish-Canadian father. Duncanson spent his early childhood in Canada and later moved outside Cincinnati to live with his mother.
Duncanson was self-taught and principally influenced by Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. By 1842, he had exhibited his paintings and received many commissions as a result. The artist thrived in Cincinnati as a landscape painter with his views of the Ohio River Valley and scenes throughout North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Canada, England and Scotland. He went on to gain international recognition, the first African-American artist to achieve such success.
In 1851, winemaker Nicholas Longworth (1783–1863) commissioned eight enormous murals from the artist to decorate the foyer of his Palladian-style villa, Belmont, in Cincinnati. Today Longworth’s home is the Taft Museum of Art. In 1853, Duncanson was asked to illustrate Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and then, financed by the Freeman’s Aid Society and the Anti-Slave League, Duncanson departed for a tour of Europe where he discovered French landscapist Claude Lorrain (1600–1682) and the attraction to Orientalism.
Back in Cincinnati in 1854, Duncanson spent the next four years painting and collaborating with the African-American photographer and abolitionist James Presley Ball (1825–1904) by retouching and painting over Ball’s photographs. Together they created the 600-foot-long antislavery panorama entitled Ball’s Splendid Mammoth Pictorial Tour of the United States (1855). During this time, he also painted portraits of prominent white abolitionists from Detroit and Cincinnati, including James G. Birney, editor of the Philanthropist, an abolitionist newspaper; Lewis Cass, a senator from Michigan; and Richard Sutton Rust, an author, Methodist minister and owner of The Caves.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Duncanson moved to Montreal and, in 1865, to the United Kingdom, spending most of his time in England and Scotland. He returned to Cincinnati during the winter of 1866–67. He died in Detroit in 1872 at the age of 51 while preparing an exhibition.